Back in 1919 hundreds of Black people were killed in Elaine, Ark. And today, it seems no one remembers.
One hundred years ago one of America’s worst incidents of racial violence occurred in Elaine, a small town located on the Mississippi River. Even today, the true story massacre has never been fully explored. What is known is that Black families were terrified and killed.
“The town was at the center of a rapidly changing lumber and plantation economy known for harsh working conditions. Sharecroppers worked the land for a small share of the crop and were forced to sell their cotton to the landowners, who paid less than market prices. Workers also had to buy food, clothing, household wares, tools, seed and fertilizer at the plantation commissary, which charged exorbitant interest rates. It was a system intended to keep Black people in debt and dependent upon planters. Legal disenfranchisement stripped them of the vote and an ability to share in any benefits of citizenship,” The New York Times reported.
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But after World War men and women migrated to Northern factories or enlisted in the military. This caused a labor shortage in the cotton fields and lumber mills. Plantation owners and lumber mills had to dish out higher wages.
The return of Black veteran also caused some problems for plantation owners, as the heroism of Black soldiers boosted the push for black freedom
Blacks were looking for more control over their lives and labor. And on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, Black sharecropper families met in a church near Elaine.
“Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts,” Smithsonian Magazine reported.
“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State.”
The farmers discussed membership in an organization called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. By joining the group, the farmers could get a fair price for the cotton they picked and to buy land. They though the lawyer to represent them with the landlords. If all worked out, they could make a good deal of money, as cotton was then the most profitable crop.
“At 11 p.m., a band of white men shot into the church. Black guards returned the fire, killing a white agent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. News of the shooting quickly reached the county seat of Helena. Soon, word spread that Blacks were attacking whites in Elaine. By early morning Oct. 1, the sheriff sent white veterans from the American Legion post to suppress what he deemed an insurrection,” the NYT reported.
The city was in chaos. White people urged the governor to call for federal troops. Telephone lines to the city were cut. At least 1,000 white vigilantes arrived from all over the state and from Mississippi to
In the end, countless Black women, men, and children had been massacred.
On Oct. 2, Gov. Charles H. Brough of Arkansas and a World War I veteran, Col. Issac Jencks, “escorted 583 soldiers, including a machine gun battalion, from Camp Pike in Little Rock, the state capital, to Elaine. Colonel Jencks sent all of the white women and children to Helena by train, ordered the immediate disarming of everyone and authorized the killing of Black insurgents who failed to disarm,” The NYT reported.
This is when things escalated. Over the next five days, Colonel Jencks and his troops along with vigilantes tracked down Black people over a 200-mile radius. They burned homes with families inside while killing and tortured other Blacks. They also “captured” 122 Blacks who would later be put on trial for the murders of three white men.
On Oct. 7, the troops withdrew. In the end, it was suspected at least 200 African-Americans were killed, though it is believed the death count was much higher.
In the last few years, the descendants of the massacre have begun to organize. They want their families’ stories heard. Earlier this year, in February, the Elaine Legacy Center, in conjunction with the Dewitt Proctor Conference, held a Truth Hearing during which 12 commissioners heard several descendants tell stories of the massacre that had been handed down through their families. The descendants seek redress. They don’t want apologies, but in recognition of the harm done, and of the way generations continue to suffer generations later. On the other hand, they claim, the descendants of the wealthier white perpetrators have profited, and still do so, from the suffering and loss the Elaine massacre Black families.